By Walter Rutledge
The Dance Theatre of Harlem held their New York season at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center Wednesday, April 23 through Sunday, April 27. Two very ambitious programs were offered featuring works by five choreographers. The season, which had something for everyone, could best be described as uneven.
The season marked the 45th anniversary of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. A hard fought milestone that stands as a testament to the persistence of the staff and supporters to bring this venerable organization back to its former glory. Although we are in a new millennium ballet dancers of color are still a novelty and not the norm. This makes Dance Theatre of Harlem’s commitment to providing a vehicle for ballet dancers of color not only noble, but also necessary.
Over it’s forty-five year history Dance Theatre of Harlem has presented an array of works ranging from classical to neo-classical to contemporary. It has also presented an impressive array of choreographers including Geoffrey Holder, Louis Johnson, Glen Tetley, George Balanchine and company founder Arthur Mitchell. It was surprising that the company did not present any major revivals during this momentous season. It would be like New York City Ballet not presenting a Balanchine or Robbins work or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater not performing Revelations at a similar milestone season.
The company chose to revive Pas de Dix from Raymonda, Act III; and two works from resident choreographer Robert Garland, Return and New Bach. Garland also presented Gloria set to music by Francis Poulenc. All three of Garland’s work displayed his visual musicality, stylistic consistency and clever use of invention.
We just wish this talented choreographer would trust himself more and not succumb to gimmickry. Adding the children to Gloria probably helped sell a few more tickets, but it reduced the work to the level of a glorified recital piece. The 3rd movement Domine Deus, Rex caelestis featuring Da’Von Doane was the most interesting section. It was well staged and showed promise, but lacked enough invention and soon fell pray to predictable repetition. In addition, Dance Theatre of Harlem needs to “school” their parents on audience decorum. If we can get people to turn off their cell phones, then they should also be able to get the parents to stop calling out their children’s name every time they cross the stage.
In New Bach Garland presented an eloquent homage to neo-classicism. Ashley Murphy danced with great élan, presenting her head and neck with the proper deportment to evoke the stylistic elegance of the genre. The entire company sailed through the work with an obvious sense of enjoyment.
Pas De Dix was a classic example of wishful thinking. In time the school should have trained dancers (especially men) in the classical style who will articulate the work. The women’s presentation was skeletal. Each variation showed promise, but this ballet is about more than the steps, it requires the proper stylistic coaching. And like last years attempt at the Black Swan Pas de Deux for Swan Lake the dancing has to extend beyond a few balances, pirouettes and jetes.
past-carry-forward by choreographers Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis was billed as depicting the Northern Migration, the mass exodus of Southern blacks for a better life in the North. This was a great idea and in the hands of more skilled choreographers it could have been an entertaining, and moving historical tribute to an important chapter of American history. Each of the abstract narrative sections started with great promise, but never came to a resolution or climax; and the work failed to establish a satisfying degree of sustained character development.
Despite solid performances by Jenelle Figgins and Darius Barnes (as the travelers), Anthony Savoy (as the Pullman porter) and Lindsey Croop, the work meandered. Then suddenly it dropped the narrative theme and changed course, morphing into an abstract work. The period look costumes were replaced by uniform white pants, tops and skirts and the music switched to a monotone largo. With a running time of thirty-four minute past-carry-forward should be classified as cruel and unusual punishment.
What I don’t understand is neither of these works were not world premieres. Both were performed on tour, thus tested on the road; so the artistic staff should have foreseen their weaknesses. If you did not hire men who could do clean double tours finishing in fifth positions, or you had no one who could coach the stylistic nuances in the port de bras and upper body then why do the ballet? And didn’t anyone notice that past-carry-forward was rambling and convoluted? I don’t fault the dancers they were valiant, it brought Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade to mind. As they danced “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward.”
Ulysses Dove’s Standing On The Front Porch Of Heaven presented the company in its most favorable light. Dove’s haunting statement on death and loss, gave this young company of contemporary ballet artists an excellent vehicle to shine on many levels. The dancers were able to capture the mood and quiet unadorned choreographic beauty. Here was an accomplished artist (Dove) sharing with an emotional honesty and clarity.
The second movement duet featuring Fredrick Davis and Savoy was the evening’s highlight. Savoy’s supple line and control was wonderfully tempered with a stately artistic abandon. Davis’ ability to be a powerful partner, yet remain unobtrusive, when required, made him the ideal platinum setting to Savoy’s diamond performance.
The company has also grown into Contested Space by Donald Byrd. This “everything and the kitchen sink” tour de force contemporary ballet showcases the dancers’ versatility and individual strengths. Both the male and female ensembles were strong and committed; and the smaller “divertissements” and pas de deux sections were executed with an unabashed bravura.
The public has waited for almost a decade with great anticipation for Dance Theatre of Harlem to return. And like a houseguest returning after a long absence we are willing to overlook a foible or two for now- we are just overjoyed to have them back. The artistic staff needs to take heed, because as with any houseguest the public will soon insist that they start putting the top back on the proverbial toothpaste.